The early years

If you’re interested in the psychology of children and how they develop, two new blogs have recently appeared which are doing a fantastic job of covering an area that has previously neglected by online writers.

Child’s Play is a new blog on the Scientopia network that combines the talents of developmental psychologists Jason Goldman and Melody Dye – the latter who we recently featured owing to her writing a couple of great articles for Scientific American Mind.

Evidence Based Mummy is another excellent child psychology blog which focuses on how children develop and the effects of the family. It’s written by psychologist Rachel Robinson who became frustrated with official child care advice that didn’t seem to have much contact with actual studies on children.

Both are lively, engaging and not afraid to pull apart the science. Highly recommended.

Link to Child’s Play.
Link to Evidence Based Mummy .

The inflexible efficiency of babies

Photo by Flickr user imedagoze. Click for sourceScientific American Mind has an excellent article on how the inflexibility of young children’s brains can make them better learners than adults.

The piece riffs on the apparent paradox that humans develop into perhaps the most psychologically flexible of creatures and yet spend the longest with seemingly impaired mental functions. This is due to the relatively delayed development of the frontal lobes during childhood.

One particularly delayed skill is the ability to direct our attention – to the point where young children don’t have the flexibility to switch away from something that has grabbed their focus.

However, the article makes the point that this may be an evolutionary ‚Äúengineering trade-off” that actually makes children much better at learning certain rules – such as those often present in language.

To explain this, it helps to imagine you are playing a guessing game: You have to choose one of two options, either A or B, one of which leads to a prize, and one of which does not. After a few rounds, you notice that about three fourths of the time the prize is at A, and the rest of the time it is at B, so you decide to guess “A” 75 percent of the time and “B” 25 percent of the time. This is called probability matching, and it is the response pattern most adults tend to adopt in these circumstances. However, if the goal is to win the most prizes, it is not the best strategy. In fact, to maximize the number of correct predictions, you should always pick the more frequent outcome (or, in this case, always pick “A”).

Interestingly, if you were playing this kind of guessing game with a toddler, you would see that they would employ the maximization strategy almost immediately…

Children’s inability to filter their learning allows them to impose order on variable, inconsistent input, and this appears to play a crucial part in the establishment of stable linguistic norms. Studies of deaf children have shown that even when parental attempts at sign are error-prone and inconsistent, children still extract the conventions of a standard sign language from them. Indeed, the variable patterns produced by parents who learn sign language offers insight into what might happen if children did not maximize in learning: language, as a system, would become less conventional. What words meant and the patterns in which they were used would become more idiosyncratic and unstable, and all languages would begin to resemble pidgins.

The piece was written by researcher Melody Dye, who works in the lab where this research is being conducted. Also, don’t miss her article on why children have trouble acquiring color names, even far past the point when parents are confident that their pride and joy has mastered the skill.

Link to SciAmMind on ‘The Advantages of Being Helpless’.
Link to SciAmMind on ‘Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors’.

The ups and downs of smouldering talent

Photo by Flickr user beX out loud. Click for sourceIn Touched with Fire psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison argued that history’s great artists were more likely to have experienced mood problems and especially the ups and down of ‘manic depression’ that fuelled their intense creativity. The idea is attractive, although her book relied on a case by case interpretation of often long-dead figures.

Nevertheless, a new study on almost three quarters of a million Swedish young people has found remarkable support for the theory where high school students who had the highest levels of academic performance were, later in life, four times more likely to be hospitalised for bipolar disorder than average pupils.

It was also noticeable that pupils in the lowest grade range were also twice as likely to develop bipolar, with average students being at lowest risk.

The researchers controlled for parents level of education, social status and birth conditions to rule out these other factors which are known to affect the chances of developing the condition but the effect still remained.

In contrast, there seems to be a fairly direct relationship between performing poorly at school and the chance of developing schizophrenia in later life, suggesting that, to a certain extent, different influences on the developing brain may be at play.

However, it’s worth noting that although the rate of bipolar for the best performing pupils quadrupled, the risk remains low. For example, of the 9,427 top performing students only 12 were diagnosed and hospitalised with bipolar – a high rate compared to the average performers but still rare.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a great podcast discussion of the study with the lead researcher, psychiatrist James McCabe, and the full text of the paper is available online as a pdf.

Although McCabe suggests that the more ‘creative’ subjects seems to be most associated with bipolar, I have to say that’s probably pushing it a bit they seem to be fairly evenly spread, although, interestingly, performing well in handicraft and sport indicated the students were less likely to be diagnosed with the condition in later life.

pdf of scientific article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast about the study.

Pavlov, Office Style

This clip, from the US version of comedy show The Office, shows Jim training co-worker Dwight to expect a sweet everytime he reboots his computer.

From Vodpod.

Psychologists everywhere will recognise this an an application of classical conditioning. The ‘scientist’ Jim has heard of is, of course, Ivan Pavlov.

Thanks to Russ Fazio for showing us this clip during his keynote at the recent BPS Social Psychology Section conference.

The Straight Dope on Learning Styles


The glorious truth is that people think and learn differently. Some people like words, but not pictures, some like movements rather than sounds. Why are people different? Who knows, perhaps because Allah loves wondrous variety.

A funny thing is that we have the tendency to ignore this fact. Perhaps because empathy is difficult, perhaps because learning makes itself invisible. I have a dear friend, Cat, who doesn’t have visual imagery. When she thinks of a dog, for example, she doesn’t see one in her mind’s eye. She doesn’t see anything. When she dreams she rarely has pictures — she just knows what is happening in the dream. People often don’t believe this. They think that everyone must experience their inner world in pictures, the way they do. Sorry. People are just different. Some always see things when they imagine them, some don’t. Some people have a sense of pitch, some don’t. So it goes.

So the idea of learning styles makes a lot of intuitive sense. Surely if we know that people think and learn differently, we should be able to design our teaching to take advantage of different learning styles. Right?

This is where we hit problems. Are learners either primarily visual, auditory, kinesthetic (as claimed in NLP)? Or are they primarily analytic, creative or pragmatic (as proposed by Robert Sternberg). Is the world made of Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators and Accomodators? Maybe instead we should use the Myers-Briggs categories of Sensers, Intuitors, Thinkers and Feelers?

Faced with these possibilities an academic psychologist has a standard set of questions they would like answered: can you really divide people up into a particular set of categories? Are the tests for these categories reliable; if you take the test twice will you come out the same both times? Are the categories you are trying to use related to how people learn? If you use a theory of learning styles, do people learn better? Can you use learning styles to predict who will benefit most from particular styles of instruction? Does using a learning styles system – any system – for teaching have other effects on learners or teachings, such as making them more confident or making them expend more effort?

These questions stem from the way academic psychologists systematically approach topics: we like to establish the truth of psychological claims. If someone comes to us with a theory about learning styles we want to know (a) if learning styles really exist, (b) if they really are associated with better learning and also (c) if, when learning styles are taken into account, learning is better because of something about the specific learing style theory rather than just being a side effect of an increase in teacher confidence, effort or somesuch.

So, what have academic psychologists found out about learning styles? We know that some of the supposed categories of learning styles are actually dimensions that vary continuously across the population. For example visual imagery: it is not that some people are visual thinkers, it is that most people have some visual imagery and a few have very strong imagery and a few, like my friend Cat, have less than average. We also know that people can change their learning styles over time, for different tasks and in different contexts. We also know that it is very difficult to prove that teaching that uses learning styles is better because of the particular theory of learning styles used, rather than merely because a learning style theory, any learning style theory, is being used and this makes people pay more attention to what they are doing.

Learning styles seem intuitively sensible. Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation. But there is no strong evidence that any one theory of learning styles is the best, or most true, compared to the others. Learning style theories can be useful without being true, and it isn’t clear that knowing the truth about the differences in how people learn will be immediately useful or produce a more useful theory of learning styles. This difference between truth and utility is a typical dilemma of psychology.

Sadly, the headlines for this conclusion aren’t snappy. It is easier to say that “Some people are visual thinkers and others are auditory thinkers” than it is to say that “Thinking about presenting information in different sensory modalities will make your teaching more varied and help those you are teaching who have different preferences to yourself”. Using a learning style theory is great, but you lose a lot of flexibility and potential for change if you start to believe that the theory is based on proven facts about the way the world is, rather than just being a useful set of habits and suggestions which might, sometimes, help guide us through the maze of teaching and learning.

Cross-posted at

Part of a series:

Image: jelly belly by House of Sims

Learning Should Be Fun


Learning can and should be fun. This is not just a moral position, but a scientific one too.

When you learn a new thing, or get a surprise, there is a shot of a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is famous among neuroscientists for its involvement in the reward and motivation systems of the brain.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the reason addictive drugs are addictive is that they hack the reward circuitry that dopamine is intimately involved in. Perhaps the most addictive drug, cocaine, directly increases the amount of dopamine at work in your brain.

Learning something new triggers a chemical release of the same kind as cocaine, albeit in a much more subtle manner. As methods of getting your kicks you can perhaps compare it to the difference between walking up a hill yourself or being strapped to a rocket and blasted up — slower, harder work, but a lot more sustainable and you’re in a better state to enjoy the view when you get there!

The reason for this electro-chemical connection between learning and drugs of reward is that our brains have obviously been designed to find learning fun.

One of the many negative things about the misconception that education is about transmitting content is the idea that any fun you have is taking time away from proper learning, and that ‘proper learning’ shouldn’t be fun.

Rather than fun being a relief from learning, or a distraction from it, for most of our history, before school, learning had to be its own motivation. Brains that learnt well had more offspring, and so learning evolved to be rewarding.

In lots of teaching situations we focus on the right and wrong answers to things, which is a venerable paradigm for learning, but not the only one. There is a less structured, curiosity-driven, paradigm which focusses not on what is absolutely right or wrong, but instead on what is surprising. A problem with rights and wrongs is that, for some people, the pressure of being correct gets in the way of experiencing what actually is.

You can try this for yourself, either in any teaching you do, or any learning. Often we will get blocked at a particular stage in our learning. A normal response is to try harder, and to focus more on what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. Sometimes this helps, but sometimes it just digs us further into our rut. The way out of the rut is to re-focus on experiencing again.

I’ll give you an example from one of the two things I know best about teaching — aikido, the japanese martial art. Aikido involves some quite intricate throws and grappling moves. Often a student is so intent on getting through the move, and on trying hard to get it right, that they become completely stuck, repeatedly doing something that doesn’t work, and usually too fast. Even if you say or show explicitly the correct movement, they can’t seem to get it. In this situation, one teaching technique I use, inspired by the ‘Inner Game’ writings of Timothy Gallway, is to tell the student to stop trying to do the move correctly, and instead do it deliberately wrong. “Try pushing over this way to the left”, I’ll say, “Now try the opposite over to the right. Now try high, or low. Which is easiest?”. By removing the obligation to get the move correct I hope to give permission to the student to just experience the effect they are having on their partner’s balance. Once they can tune into this they can figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is, without me having to tell them.

However you do it, if you can get out of the rut of right and wrong you free up a natural capacity for experience-led, curiosity-driven learning. Soon you’ll be flying along again, experiencing the learning equivalent of the jogger’s high, and all thanks to that chemical messenger dopamine and a brain that’s evolved to find things out for itself, and feel good while doing it.

Part of a series. #1 Learning Makes Itself Invisible

Cross-posted at

Image: jogging on the beach by Naama

Learning Makes Itself Invisible

This month I am guest blogging at School of Everything, the website that helps people who want to learn meet people who want to teach. I’ll be posting here and there about what psychologists know about learning. Below is my first post…

Once you have learnt something you see the world differently. Not only can you appreciate or do something that you couldn’t appreciate or do before, but the way you saw the world before is now lost to you. This works for the small things as well as the big picture. If you learn the meaning of a new word, you won’t be able to ignore it like you did previously. If you learn how to make a cup of out of clay you won’t ever be able to see cups like you used to before.

This means it is hard to imagine what it is like for someone else who hasn’t learnt what you’ve learnt. The psychologist Paul Bloom calls this the curse of knowledge in the context of being unable to model what other people don’t know, rather than on what you yourself used not to know. If you’ve ever organised a surprise party for someone, or had another kind of secret, you’ll know the feeling. It seems so *obvious* what you are keeping hidden, but usually the person you are hiding it from doesn’t catch on. They don’t catch on because the clues are only obvious to you, knowing the secret, and you find it hard to imagine what they see not knowing it.

The reason this occurs is because of two facts about the mind that are not widely appreciated. The first is that memory is not kept in a separate store away from the rest of the mind’s functions. Although there are brain regions crucial to memory, the memories themselves are not stored separately from the regions which do perception, processing and output. Unlike a digital computer, your mind does not have to fetch stored information when it needs it, instead your memories affect every part of your perception and behaviour.

The second important fact about the mind is related to the first. It is that learning something involves changing the structures of the mind that are involved in perception and behaviour. Memories are not kept in a separate store, but are constituted by the connections between the neurons in your brain. This means that when you learn something — when you create new memories — it isn’t just *added* to your mind, but it changes the structures that make up your mind so that your perceptions, behaviour and potentially all of your previous memories are changed too.

We can see this in microcosm if we look at a small example of what is called one-shot perceptual learning. What do you think this is?


Now probably you don’t know, but I would like you do savour the feeling of not knowing. Try and taste, like a rare wine, what the perceptual experience is like. You can see the parts of the picture, the blacks and the whites, various shapes, some connected to others and some isolated.

If you now look at this popup here then you will have this taste washed out of your mind and irrevocably removed. It will be gone, and you will never be able to recover it. This is why I asked you to savour it. Now look at the original again. Notice how the parts are now joined in a whole. You just cannot see the splotches of black and white, the groups, the isolated parts, again. When you learn the meaning of the whole picture this removed the potential for that experience. Even the memory is tantalisingly out of reach. You can’t recover an experience that you yourself had two minutes ago!

One-shot learning is unusual. Most learning happens over a far longer time-scale, so it is even harder to keep a grip on what it was like to not know. All of us will have had the experience of a bad teacher who simply couldn’t see why we had a problem — they simply couldn’t see that we couldn’t understand or do what was obvious or easy to them. A good teacher has to have the dual-mind of knowing something, but also being able to empathise with someone who doesn’t know it, someone for whom what is obvious isn’t obvious yet. It is because learning has this tendency to make itself invisible that teaching is such a difficult and noble tradition.

Cross-posted at

Link A post in which I discuss a similar thing in the context of the role expectations play in our perception.

The reference I took the picture from: Rubin, N., Nakayama, K. and Shapley, R. (2002), The role of insight in perceptual learning: evidence from illusory contour perception. In: Perceptual Learning, Fahle, M. and Poggio, T. (Eds.), MIT Press.